Not a Capitol idea

In a city without a downtown cinema and a dearth of theatre space, it seems ludicrous for a 68-year-old historic building with a 500-seat theatre to sit empty at the west end of Duckworth. Yet, there flap the “For Lease” signs in the windows of the old Capitol Theatre, a building which a local developer and a few cohorts once envisioned as a hub for the arts community.

Sydney Blackmore and Sarah Smellie try to sort out what went wrong.

What do you get when you cross a prominent businessman, a non-profit organization and three levels of government?

Why, a new condo at a prime historic downtown location, of course.

That is, if the now floundering plans for the Capitol Theatre restoration are any indication.

The Capitol, which sits right in the middle of the Duckworth Street dead zone, first opened up in 1940. The five-story office building houses a 500-seat movie theatre, which was a popular night-out spot until 1977. When it shut down, The CBC, who moved into the building in 1953, converted the old theatre into a recording studio. When the Ceeb moved to their digs on Prince Philip Drive last year, local developer Paul Madden—the man behind Spa at the Monastery and the condo project The Narrows—scooped up the art deco giant, with lofty dreams of restoring it to a fully functioning mid-sized performance theatre.

After talks on a partnership between Madden and the LSPU Hall spiraled into oblivion, Noreen Golfman, head of the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival, approached him about the possibility of collaborating with the festival board. Instead of a performance theatre, she suggested reviving the Capitol’s original role as a movie theatre, one which could function as an epicentre for the burgeoning film community.

“It became a practical fantasy about a new advisory or management board that would evolve out of the film festival board, a new board of community people interested in film,” she tells me.

The remaining offices, which would be owned and commercially controlled by Madden, could be rented to local arts organizations, like MUSICNL, who are scrounging for a spot in a city where the office space shortage is so severe that tell of it reached the hallowed pages of The Globe and Mail.

The duo took their idea to the province, the city and ACOA. The intention was that the renovations for the theatre—which would be controlled by a non-profit board of directors—would come from government. All else would be financed by Madden.

Initially, everyone was enthusiastic.

“ACOA threw five thousand dollars towards an engineering study of what the actual costs would be to refurbish the theatre—zone, code, state-of-the-art sound system—and it was roughly a million and a half dollars,” says Golfman. With the potential of new office space and an injection of life and money into a dreary part of town, “it’s a no-brainer,” she says.

Dealing with three levels of government, however, doesn’t make for fast and easy business deals.
Some city councilors balked at the idea of financing a non-profit venture tied to a commercial one.
“The problem was, and I’m sympathetic to it, what they call ‘competitive impact,'” relates Golfman. “If they fund this, they feel they have to fund something like Spirit of Newfoundland.”

According to Ron Penney, chief commissioner and city solicitor, the city also asked for a business plan in addition to the engineering study. They never received one.

Now, after almost a year of back and forth, Madden is fed up and pulling out.

Gary Downey—mortgage broker with E Z Lease and the man whose name and number is on the disheartening “For Lease” signs in the Capitol’s windows—isn’t too optimistic.

“We’ve been campaigning for this for about a year,” he says. “It’s still Paul’s building and he’ll try to sell it or lease it, whichever comes first. We’ll either do a condominium project or sell the whole thing as office space.”

“The City is still interested in the Capitol Theatre project but as you can see, the developer appears to have abandoned the idea,” says Penney. “While I understand that Mr. Madden may be frustrated by the length of the process, getting the three levels of government to agree to cost-share such a project is a complicated and time consuming process.”

“It’s just a tragedy,” sighs Golfman. “Just when the film industry in this province is really on a growth curve.”


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12 September 2007

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